The use of charity to advance radical ideologies is hardly a novel idea. European fascist movements built a base of support through charitable programs and promises of social welfare. The Ku Klux Klan delivered food and medicine to poor white communities. Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Khomeinists, Wahhabis, ISIS, and al-Qaeda have all made use of charities and welfare programs to propagate and consolidate their control over Muslim communities.
Radical ideological movements do not only establish their own charitable groups; they also hijack the altruism and naïveté of others. In a widely discussed scandal in Britain, it emerged in 2014 that dozens of prominent charities had funded a jihadist support group for years, apparently under the impression they were merely backing a civil-rights campaign.
But not all charitable accomplices to radical causes are guileless, respectable organizations; some are fellow travelers, perfectly aware of their partners' extremism. One enormous charitable umbrella organization, InterAction, offers a compelling example.
This taxpayer-funded, D.C.-based charity works to lobby Congress on behalf of dangerous, bigoted Islamist charities tied to extremism and terror, with the express purpose of shielding them from serious questioning and freeing them from restrictive terror-finance laws. InterAction does all this in the belief that it is fighting "disinformation" and "populist-nationalism."
Founded in 1984, InterAction is the largest alliance of international NGOs in the world, comprising over 180 separate groups "working to eliminate extreme poverty, strengthen human rights and citizen participation, safeguard a sustainable planet, promote peace, and ensure dignity for all people." As delightful as this sounds, federal agencies, foreign governments, journalists, and independent researchers have repeatedly found that a number of InterAction's member-bodies work towards a very different set of ideals. In fact, InterAction members include several radical Islamic charities tied directly to criminal or terrorist activity.
For instance, LIFE for Relief and Development is a Michigan charity whose offices and officials' homes were raided by FBI agents in 2006. The investigation revealed that LIFE had been sending money to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, in an "egregious" violation of U.S. sanctions. A raid of LIFE founder Mujahid Al-Fayadh's home reportedly uncovered $134,000 in cash and Iraqi military decorations. And LIFE's public-relations coordinator, Muthanna al-Hanooti, was later sentenced to a year in federal prison for his efforts to influence Congress on behalf of Saddam's Iraqi Intelligence Service. LIFE itself was fined $780,000 in 2015 because it "knowingly and willfully formed a conspiracy for the purpose of transferring funds from the United States to Iraq."
Other InterAction member bodies include the Zakat Foundation of America. This charity was founded by Halil Demir, a former official at the Benevolence International Foundation, an al-Qaeda charitable front designated in 2002 by the U.S. Treasury. According to Professor Ahmet S. Yayla, director of the Center for Homeland Security at DeSales University, the Zakat Foundation is today a key component of the brutal Turkish regime's network of proxy organizations across the United States.
Nonetheless, InterAction works on behalf of these extremist groups and others. Most recently, the main conduit for InterAction's efforts has been its Together Project, which was launched in 2017 to, in theory, "confront discrimination or targeted prejudicial regulations in the U.S. due to their operating principles or religious faith." In practice, the Together Project is a coalition of extremist-linked Islamist charities that work together under an InterAction banner. Their implicit goal, the Middle East Forum has concluded, is to stifle criticism of Islamist charitable fronts and undermine terrorism-finance laws.
Astonishingly, this work is subsidized by the taxpayer. InterAction has received grants worth tens of millions of dollars over the last decade from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department — $5 million in January 2020 alone.
The Together Project contains five core Islamist charities with documented links to extremist movements: Helping Hand for Relief and Development, Islamic Relief, Zakat Foundation of America, American Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa, and United Muslim Relief.
InterAction has worked with these groups for the past three years to downplay examples of extremism and terror-finance links. In 2017, shortly after the Together Project was established, InterAction, along with its Together Project member bodies, was a leading force behind a letter sent by then-congressman Keith Ellison (now attorney general of Minnesota) to other legislators that attempted to minimize the extremist activities of Islamic Relief -- an enormous charity headquartered in the U.K., established and run by prominent members of several Muslim Brotherhood branches. Ellison and his InterAction-led backers urged lawmakers to reject a bill that would have excluded the Islamist organization from receiving government monies.
And yet Islamic Relief has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United Arab Emirates and Israel. It has seen its bank accounts shut down by UBS and HSBC. The German government has determined that Islamic Relief has "significant ties" to the Muslim Brotherhood, with a Swedish government report reaching similar conclusions. Both British and Italian officials have investigated Islamic Relief's habit of hosting radical preachers. And the Egyptian and Tunisian governments have accused Islamic Relief of financing jihadists.
In Gaza, Islamic Relief openly works with proxy organizations for the terrorist group Hamas. In the U.S, the Islamic Relief branch is run by senior Islamist operatives who openly identify as supporters of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. One official, Yousef Abdallah, left the organization after his virulent anti-Semitism became the subject of an international media scandal. Most recently, on May 3, Islamic Relief USA ran an event with Omar Abdelkafi, a hardline Egyptian preacher who has spoken of the "filth of Jews" and urged God to "slay them one by one and spare not one of them."
InterAction's Together Project makes no secret of the tactics it employs in defense of these extremist charities and their hateful practices. In response to a proposed congressional amendment to bar funding to Islamic Relief, InterAction called on its "informal support network" to "flood congressional offices" with messages. Together Project manager Princess Bazley-Bethea advised nonprofits to counter with "strong human stories" and avoid focusing "too much on challenging allegations." A wise tactic, especially when such allegations are irrefutably accurate.
InterAction openly and unashamedly runs interference for the terror links and racism of its Islamist partners. It even discourages its members from voicing discontent: Bazley-Bethea has urged member charities not to question the actions of their fellow charities, insisting that they "compromise or defer to a partner's judgment in decision-making to move towards the greater common goal."
It is not just counter-terror legislation that InterAction fears, but any criticism concerning its members. InterAction notes that "one organisation . . . had to spend over US$100,000 in one year to improve search engine optimisation results for its name and leaders." This expenditure was seemingly in response to a comprehensively sourced and detailed Middle East Forum report on Islamic Relief's extremism that was discussed by lawmakers and experts at a congressional hearing and has been cited by journalists, academics, and various experts ever since.
Islamic Relief is far from the only Islamist charity to benefit from InterAction's unquestioning, taxpayer-subsidized defense of these extremists. At the end of 2019, InterAction officials, accompanied by representatives of its Islamist charities, met with congressional staff on behalf of Helping Hand for Relief and Development (HHRD), one of its core member charities and a branch of the violent South Asian Islamist movement Jamaat-e-Islami.
In December 2017, HHRD organized a conference in Pakistan with the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation and the Milli Muslim League, the charitable and political wings respectively of the notorious Pakistani terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was responsible for the deadly Mumbai attacks in 2008, in which 166 people were murdered, including 6 Americans. Both branches and its parent terror group are designated as terrorists by the United States and the United Nations.
Documents disseminated by InterAction and HHRD at its congressional meetings denounce the Middle East Forum and offer misleading and false claims concerning our research, which have been covered widely in the media and cited by members of Congress. HHRD has even hired Perkins Coie, the law firm responsible for the notorious "Steele dossier" on President Trump.
InterAction and its extremist partners have been busy perfecting the art of obfuscation. Its Together Project has published a "disinformation toolkit" that teaches members how to control negative press by promoting "alternative messages" and "new narratives." By tying legitimate criticism of its members to "fake news," internet "trolls" and "bots," and even Russian interference in the 2016 election, InterAction teaches nonprofits to distract and confound.
And when it is not working to smear researchers and their findings, InterAction has recently endorsed letters to the House and Senate pushing for the weakening of terror-finance laws, met with lawmakers from key committees, lobbied against legislation targeting terror financing in South Asia, and worked to revise financial regulation in ways that would downplay the risks associated with money laundering and terrorist financing.
Islamist terror-tied charities in America now have a taxpayer-subsidized umbrella organization, with powerful legislative and executive connections, lobbying on their behalf. And with InterAction come almost 200 of its other charitable member bodies, from which InterAction demands support for its efforts, all in the name of dutiful "solidarity."
The defeat of terror-finance networks in America can succeed only when the government stops funding its adversaries' advocates. InterAction is not just another guileless progressive organization; it is a leading, active member of a network working to protect hate-filled theocrats who advance an iniquitous ideology through the exploitation of charity. We've seen this sort of behavior before from non-Muslim partners of Islamist charities. It must be stopped. Every InterAction member charity, and every one of those charities' donors, must be made aware.
Sam Westrop is the director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum